The 50 Greatest Singles: an Exercise in the Absurd

Sound Grammar

James Brown performing live in Hamburg, Germany, February 1973. Photo: Heinrich Klaffs. CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, Rolling Stone, desperate for clickbait to lure in new readers, published a list of what its writers considered the 500 Greatest Singles. 500! That’s really narrowing it down. I didn’t wade my way through the entire sonic ocean, the top 50 were enough to recognize what a mess it was, list-making by advertising demographics. There seemed to be no controlling theme or even intelligence behind it, which, naturally, is emblematic of the absurdity of the project.

What is a “single”, anyway? A long extinct 45? A song that charted? Something you first heard on the radio? A song that stays floating in the stream, long after it was released?  For me a single is a hit. Not in terms of sales, but a song that hits the gut. A singular experience. A song I heard a fragment of for the first time, probably on the radio or on Soul Train, and immediately wanted to hear again, rushed to track down in Obadiah’s head shop/record store on Meridian Street in 70s Indianapolis or Olsson’s Books and Records on Wisconsin Ave. in 80s Georgetown or Music Millennium on East Burnside in 90s Portland. A song with punch, that echoes in the head. A song you never forget, never tire of hearing again. A song that changed you in ways small and profound. A song that consoled you, made you want to screw or go out and smash something.

To read this article, log in here or subscribe here.
If you are logged in but can't read CP+ articles, check the status of your access here
In order to read CP+ articles, your web browser must be set to accept cookies.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3

CounterPunch Magazine Archive

Read over 400 magazine and newsletter back issues here

Support CounterPunch

Make a tax-deductible monthly or one-time donation and enjoy access to CP+.  Donate Now

Support our evolving Subscribe Area and enjoy access to all Subscribers content.  Subscribe